The best short story writers manage to say a lot, using a little.
If you want to see what I mean, you need to read the work of Claire Aman, a writer from northern NSW who writes the most moving short stories, in a most economical and restrained fashion. (Read one of them here – Queensland Bluegrass – I GUARANTEE 5 mins of magical reading. Bring tissues)
Claire’s work has been published widely, in several anthologies and journals such as Southerly, Island, Heat, Australian Book Review and Griffith Review. For the last two years, it’s been a privilege to have my own short stories published alongside Claire’s in Margaret River Press’ annual short story anthology.
Claire’s latest work, Why the Owl Gazes at the Moon, is a longish short story published by Spineless Wonders as part of their Michael McGirr selects.. series. It’s about a young roadhouse cook, Yvette, dealing with the aftermath of her sister’s sudden and violent death.
Your story is named after an ancient Chinese proverb. How did this inspire the writing?
The Chinese folk tale Why the Owl Gazes at the Moon is one of those stories that explains why the world is as it is. Like Kipling’s Just So Stories. The Chinese story is about the sadness of friends who have been separated as a result of being swept up in larger events. In my story, Yvette and Selena are like the owl and the moon. There is a kind of correspondence between my story and the folk tale. I heard the Chinese tale in Penang in 1983, and I always remembered it, always thought there was something universal about it. I love the great helpless longing in it.
It’s written in the first person, where Yvette is addressing another character. How did you arrive at that narrative voice?
I originally wrote the story as a novel in third person, about Yvette. That was years ago. Maybe 20 years. I’ve rewritten it five or six times over the years. Last time I visited it, I felt third person wasn’t right any more. A long time had passed for the characters since I first wrote them. The story’s events were now in the distant past for Yvette. It seemed right for her, years later, to mentally narrate the story to Selena.
Yvette – the main character – is tough yet vulnerable. Do you identify with her in some way?
Yes, I identify with Yvette! I’ve always had motorbikes and I used to work as a roadhouse cook on a highway. The story, while not autobiographical, draws on my own feelings about grief and communication. That’s why it works better having gone from third person to the way it is now. It’s been good to adjust the distance and viewpoint as time goes on and my own feelings change.
Can you tell me about your process for writing a short story? I understand you are a conscientious notebook keeper?
I love my A5 black spiral notebooks! I keep a notebook when I have a story coming on. It’s like kindling. At those times, everything seems relevant to the story, everything gravitates there. Thoughts, drawings, quotes, images, lists, lots of questions, beautiful and ugly bits of prose, sentences expressed in different ways. I never cross anything out. When I’m between stories I don’t keep a notebook. My stories begin brewing when I get preoccupied with an image or a person I’ve seen, then I see something else that fits that shape, then an unrelated idea suddenly becomes related, or even central. I never know what the plot is. That is always very late in the piece. It’s like an iceberg. Most of the time I’m just dreaming around, letting my subconscious form the story. I try not to force anything, but I’m learning to be a bit more active about it. A story can take a long time. Lucky not to have to depend on writing.
I also sense, in your work, a huge amount of attention to language at the sentence and word level. Do you tend to write and re-write certain sentences over and over?
I love crafting and polishing a story. When I compose a first draft, I’m always very unsure of where it’s going. It’s unsatisfying having to solve problems about who does what. So I soothe myself by polishing as I go along. Every time I open the document I read the story over. I look for clumsy words and sentences and think of better ways to express things. Then I get to the part I’m composing and press on. I’ve read somewhere that you shouldn’t edit until the end, but this way works for me. Maybe because it imbues me with the story as I’m going. I like searching for good words and sentences, trying to judge what sounds okay. I don’t play flute but James Galway says you should try to make every note beautiful. It’s a good ambition.
What makes a great short story?
Emotional resonance. I like a story that moves me. I like it when I recognise a feeling, to think ah, that is how I felt, that is it. I don’t need to know what happens at the end of a story, but I like enough information to be able to speculate.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I tried to write a novel about ten years ago. But I was bored with the character (she reminded me of myself), and I was trying to make it political. I did a lot of descriptions of streets and houses but not much action because I wasn’t really interested. I told my friend Gillian Mears I felt as if I was trudging along with the novel. She said ‘Go for a gallop! Try writing a short story!’ So I wrote a short story, and that’s what I’ve done ever since. It was liberating advice, and I’ll always appreciate it.
Writing’s a good way to communicate for people who aren’t extroverts. When I talk, people don’t listen! I have quite a slow mind so writing lets me collect my thoughts and put them out there. Also, I love reading, so it’s wonderful to contribute to that world.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on anything at the moment. But last week I bought a large A4 black spiral notebook, thinking maybe I’d try and write a novel. I’m feeling daunted and brave, haven’t scribbled anything in the notebook yet.